Last week alone she brought the house down over at Third Man, killed it on Letterman, wowed Pitchfork's Brooklyn shutter-bugs, reinvented "senior moments" with "septuagenarian" glory over a two-night stand at L.A.'s El Rey Theater, and tonight she plays Conan. And it's all because current Scene cover boy Jack White pulled the 73-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer from the precipice of retirement to helm her latest release, The Party Ain't Over — which drops today on Third Man/Nonesuch. While the year is still young, I'm already feeling fairly confident in predicting that TPAO may indeed prevail as the party album of 2011. Revisit this if you need some convincing.
Last month I got an opportunity to catch up with Jackson over at Third Man HQ, where she divulged the deets on her experience working with White, his process in the studio, her trepidation over attempting Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good," her excitement at a potential career resurgence, and a funnel full of other repartee that you're gonna just love. Peruse the Q&A sesh below.
Nashville Cream: When we last talked you were coming through to play The 5 Spot and you’d just learned about your Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. At the time, the induction ceremony hadn’t happened yet. What was it like, and what was that whole experience like?
Wanda Jackson: My husband was just kind of outraged, [and] had been for several years, that I wasn’t in it. And I would say, “Honey I don’t expect to be in it. I’ve never had a string of No. 1 hit songs, and, in fact, I have never had even one No. 1 rock ’n’ roll song.”
He said, "Well, you should be there.” The first one [to lobby for me] was Elvis Costello. When he came out to Hollywood to do Frasier, he had just been inducted, I think, that year. He was the same way, he said, “Why aren’t you in it?! I looked through the roster and you’re not there.” I told him the same thing. He said, “No, if they’re going to be credible at all, you should be there.” So he wrote a stinging letter to them, and said, “there is a certain guitar of mine they’re wanting,” and he told them in the letter, “you will not get that guitar until it will hang next to Wanda Jackson’s.” So he was really stepping out for me, and that got the ball rolling. So Wendell picked it up from there and got my fans writing in, even made a form letter they could copy and send in.
I still just didn’t know what all the hullabaloo was about, I’m really kind of dumb [laughs], I can admit that now. I didn’t see the importance of it was. Wendell said, “You don’t know the importance of being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?!” And I said, “No, I can’t that that’ll change anything.” “ Oh yes it will,” he said. And I learned, it makes a big difference.
NC: And what the difference has it made? What kinds of things have happened in the nearly two years since being inducted?
WJ: I have larger crowds. There was so much publicity just around the event, and the fact that I was being inducted, all my fans talked it up, and just like with you, I did interviews. My name was out there more, and now, working with Jack White, it REALLY is. And, in some cases, I make a little more money [laughs], because I’m working larger rooms. A thing I was surprised about, I’ve always felt pretty confident onstage, I’ve never had much stage fright, that was my territory, I could handle it, but I have gained a new confidence, because once your peers say you're worthy, it does something to you.
NC: And these aren’t just your peers, they’re people that you influenced, people that came out of the house you helped build.
WJ: That’s right.
NC: Have you always kept your ear to the ground as far as those artists that follow the kind of classic rock ’n’ roll trajectory you’re a part of, and have been fans of yours?
WJ: Oh yeah, they are all over the world, but some of them have become dear friends through, you know, just the years. … When I saw the category [The Rock Hall] put me in — Early Influence — then I felt comfortable. So I said, ‘Now, that’s right. Now I belong there."
NC: You were talking about the kind of exposure the induction garnered you, and now working with Jack White obviously elevates the platform even more …
WJ: Yeah. More interests stirred up again. I was just thinking after the induction, “I’ve had a great ride the last 20-something years here with the revival of my old music and my career, but it will start slowing down, I won’t, but it will just happen, so I’ll just bow out gracefully,” and all those negative thoughts like that. Well, it wasn’t two months until Jack called and was interested in doing a projected with me.
NC: So he really came to you? At the time, how aware of him and his work were you?
WJ: Really I only knew the name. I had seen it in the trade papers, and probably posters in town — Jack White, White Stripes — and I figured it was rock ’n’ roll of some sort, but I didn’t really know it. And I’ve told Jack that, but he understands that it’s not my generation’s cup of tea [laughs]. But I think some of his songs are really good, now that I have listened. He is so talented.
NC: When I talked to him, he’d said he was initially approached about appearing on a duets record you were planning.
WJ: That’s the way it started, yeah. [Manager] Jon Hensley, Wendell and I were sitting around after a job, or before a job, just hanging out, and John said, “Why don’t you start thinking about what you might want to do, the next people that come up and want to record with you.” Because my last two albums have been with companies that have come to me, so I’m not out knocking on doors trying to find a record deal, because I feel I’m passed that. So, we were just kicking around that idea of, “why don’t we try a Wanda and Friends record, and Jon thought it was a good idea too.
So he mentioned it to one of his friends here in Nashville, and she said, “Well, if you do, be sure you call Jack White, I’ve heard he’s is a fan of Wanda’s, and he’s a fan of that era of music.” So that’s what Jon did, he called Jack and asked if he would be interested, but he said, “No, I don’t just to do a duet with her, but I want to record her though."
NC: Obviously, that’s more than you hoped for.
WJ: Yeah, we kind of backed into it [laughs].
NC: Were you pretty surprised he made such an offer?
WJ: John was beside himself. He called up, yelling like a little kid, “You’re not gonna believe it!” I kind of had to be told by Wendell that Jack is about the hottest thing on the planet right now. And I said, “He wants to record me!?” So then I was quite flattered, and got some of his records and listened to them.
NC: What was it like recording with him? Tell me about the process of making this record.
WJ: Well, I live in Oklahoma, so he would just send me songs, someone’s record, or four or five songs on a CD, along with the lyrics. And I would listen and I was just kind of shocked — “What’s this young man wanting me to do!?” I thought he was just wanting me to maybe cover some old rock or country songs, or whatever, and I’m listening to Amy Winehouse, and I said, “I cant sing that kind of song.” And Wendell said, “Why not?” “Well, I never have,” [laughs], you know?
But the more I listened to it, the more I began to soften up a bit, and I thought, “This is a good song,” it’s just the lyrics are a bit much for me [laughs], you know? Being my age, you cant sing about things like that. In fact, I had put it aside, thinking, “I am NOT going to record that. We’ll keep it in the stack, but I am not recording that."
So [laughs], what does Jack do the first rattle out of the bag? He says, “Let’s try the Amy Winehouse song.” He already had the track cut.
NC: Did he and the band cut a lot of that stuff on their own, and then you showed up to track your vocals?
WJ: Yeah … but he didn’t even know what key I sang these things in, you know? Or what tempo I wanted them played at — it was how he wanted them. So that was different for me, there was some adjusting to do, but I learned how confident he was in what he was doing, and what he was doing with me. I finally told him, “Jack, I give up. I am putting myself in your hands.” I have never done that before.
NC: Was that hard to do?
WJ: Not when I saw his heart. When I started knowing him, that he was [looking out] for me, that he wanted a good product, and he didn’t want to change me or my style — he wanted to freshen it, and give the fans something a little newer. And that was exactly what I had been thinking about, “Hey, this has been laid in my lap. Smarten up, girl!” So that’s what I did.
I came to the microphone that day and said, “Jack, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t find the chords to this thing.” I didn’t know what key I was doing it in. The melody was odd. I just really didn’t really know this thing yet, because I didn’t much want to record it. But he still wanted me to do it first [laughs].
So he sang it to me in my headphones from the engineer room, to teach me the melody. And after I got the melody, I put the style in. So it was quite different, the whole process was enlightening; exciting — that’s an old word — but it was a bit challenging, too.
The songs are pretty easy. I don’t know why I was finding it such a challenge. Like “Busted” — I’ve been hearing that song forever, but I’d never sung it. I think my problem in the beginning was seeing myself singing this type of song. It wasn’t country, really, it was more country than rock, but I don’t know, I was just thinking, “It just doesn’t fit with me.” [Laughs.] But once we got it done I said, “Hey, this is darn cute. It really works."
So I gave up and said, “I don’t even know what I am talking about, because I don’t know this new market at all, I don’t claim to. So, I better just take my hands off and let him do what he wants to."
NC: What’s it like to embark on that kind of adventure at this point in your career, especially when — months earlier — you’d been considering retiring? How does it feel to have this whole new door open up?
WJ: A total shock, as you could imagine, and exhilarating. Gosh, yeah. It’s just something exciting [happening] everyday. Now I wake up and wonder, “What’s happening today? What’s Jack got in mind now [laughs]?"
NC: Do you feel like a new artist?
WJ: Yeah. It’s kind of a reinventing process.
NC: Have you performed live with Jack yet, or with his band?
NC: Do you plan to do that, to do shows, or tour with him on this?
WJ: Well, he has some things in mind. You don’t plan for Jack, he kind of decides what he wants to do, and then his organization makes it happen. I found out just yesterday that they have me booked on Letterman and Conan, with his band. And I said, “Are you, by chance, going to be there?” And I didn’t think he would, you know. He said, “Yeah, on the TV shows, I’m just going to be your guitar player.” I thought, “How sweet.” He’s a humble guy to be able to do that, just step in the background.
NC: As I’m sure you know, what he did for Loretta Lynn’s career was huge. What are your expectations as far as what this can do for your career at this point?
WJ: Well, naturally that went through my mind, as you can imagine [laughs]. She got four Grammy nominations, and won two. At least that means I am in the right place to try for it. I’ll still be very surprised, but a lot of people are saying that they won’t be that surprised. But it’s hard to judge your own work, so I don’t know.
NC: Well, either way, you’re going to inevitably reach a new audience. And even for people who are familiar with your back catalog, their interest is likely to be rekindled, since this is something fresh, not a revival kind of thing.
WJ: Right, that’s why they like it, because nowadays everything is, “What’s the next big thing? Oh, Wanda’s got something new? Great!” They are all for it. I didn’t think it would be that way, but I am happy it is..
NC: Did Jack choose all the songs for the record?
WJ: All but three of them. Three didn’t come up the way he wanted, so he asked right on the spot, “Anything that you always wanted to record? We’ve got room for three more.” So I picked out three of the songs for the album, and he liked them very much too when he heard them.
NC: And which ones were those?
WJ: “Like a Baby,” which is an Elvis song, and Jack loved it — he had never heard it. And “Teach Me Tonight,” by the DeCastro Sisters. He was familiar with that one because it was recorded through the years by different people. The DeCastros had a monster hit with that in the early ‘50s — I was still in school. And “Blue Yodel #6,” beause Wendell asked Jack, “Did you know Wanda even yodels?” And he said, “No I don’t think I did.” So that was just one I knew the words to, so I sang it for him. On “Like a Baby” he called the band in the next day, got their arrangement done, I came in and it was like back in the ’60s — I got to stand in the room with the band and sing it, it was so much fun.
NC: Did that spontaneity make it different than the rest of tracks on the album for you?
WJ: Yeah, well, It’s just the live music. I don’t sound any different on it, but inside me, it’s just more exciting to have the other creative people around you.
NC: I know, throughout the years, you’ve played a lot with pickup bands, who have to learn your repertoire on short notice. How different was it to work with these guys, who already have tracks cut, and are prepared at this level?
WJ: Well I have been recording with playbacks since, well, actually before it was ever done in America, in Germany. When I recorded in the German language they had to have the playbacks done. Well, we’d never heard of that, and I said, “How am I going to sing while the band’s not there? … How did you know the tempo I wanted these songs, or the key I was going to sing in?” “They were written for you. We know your low is D, and your top is B flat.” So the songs were written. But that was Germany in '65, and I got a No. 1 song. But I hadn’t done it like that since. But I have been recording all along in Europe, as well as in America — not on big projects, but just having records available for my fans. So it wasn’t all that new to me.
NC: But In terms of getting to work on something that involved so much preparation on the part of such a professional class of musicians, that’s gotta be different than jumping between pickup bands, right?
WJ: I’ve always done records with that caliber of musicians. Nashville, Hollywood, New York — they are all off those type of musicians, you have to have them. Especially in the days we had head arrangements — you had to do it on the spot, and they would build the whole song right there, right when they were learning it. And it just knocked me out — always did — how they can do that. No rehearsal, nothing, go in and get great sounds.
NC: Is this your first record for Nonesuch Records?
WJ: This is the first. Jack was really excited when [Nonesuch’s parent label] Warner Bros. — after they heard a few of the tracks, not even all of them — said, “We want that.” So that’s when I started thinking, “Hey, this thing is even bigger than I thought it was.” But I knew it was going to be pretty big — with his name on it — but it’s getting bigger all the time.
NC: A part of the nature of what they are doing here at Third Man is putting a lot of emphasis on vinyl records, and those kinds of more classic aesthetics and mediums …
WJ: Yeah, he records to analog.
NC: How long had it been since you’d recorded to analog?
WJ: Maybe since the ’70s.
NC: What’s your take on going back to vinyl records, and recording to tape?
WJ: I feel very comfortable with it, naturally, because all the digital stuff is new to me — but I liked it, I love that crisp sound. But now, the fans are liking the vinyl, because of the softer sound — I think that’s what Jack called it — you hear everything, but it’s not in your face, you know?
NC: Not to mention having the big artwork in front of you too …
WJ: Right, and onstage, getting to say, “on the A-side of my record,” my actual record [laughs]. It’s been fun.
NC: Did you find Jack, as a producer, to be more similar to producers of the ’60s than to more modern producers you’ve worked with?
WJ: I haven’t worked with that many producers on a whole project like [this]. The other recordings I’ve have done, we’d have someone producing, but I kind of told them what I wanted. Jack is more of a hands-on guy. He takes the time — whatever time you need. That’s amazing, because back in our day, you did an album in three days and you were out — that was it. And you had to get four songs everyday to get that album, so we worked fast. But it’s been fun, just being kind of laid back, and taking little breaks here and there.
NC: From start to finish, how long did this record take to make?
WJ: Gosh, I don’t know. He’d just ask me, “Do you feel like trying another one?” We would come in with a block of time, and it didn’t much matter whether I got five songs done or three. If I didn’t get all of them, I would come back in because I’m not that far away.
NC: So it was a more of a prolonged recording process than you’re used to?
WJ: Yeah. I dropped in one day when he was recording background vocals, just to see what he was doing, and I ended up singing with the girls right there one the spot, and they liked it better, they could phrase with me more easily if they were right there with me.
NC: In general, what’s Jack like while he’s working? What’s his enthusiasm level?
WJ: It’s hard to tell when he’s working. He’s very focused on whatever it is that’s going on in his mind [laughs], he’s a thinker, but he’s kind of anxious when he’s working — he’s hyper, focused, but you can tell that he’s liking something when he gets up out of his chair, and he walks and messes with his hair while he’s listening to it, and you’d say, “He likes this, he likes what’s happening?
NC: How would he communicate his ideas to you? When you were entrusting yourself to his vision for the record, how would he sell you on it?
WJ: Just as one artist would to another. I can usually always pretty well know what I’m trying to say with a verse, or a line of what the writer wanted, and then however I wanted to sell it, so I don’t have to be told to much about that. It was just that pushing — he was wanting that Wanda Jackson growl. And I was shocked that he wanted so much of it through the songs, but I found that to be fun. It was a challenge to find out where it would fit best, you know? And I am doing this while I am learning the song and trying to record it, so I was busy [laughs].
NC: With having a new audience, and through playing with a younger peer group of musicians — do you feel like you have a new kind of relevance with this generation than you had with maybe, say, the generation of the '80s or the '90s?
WJ: I’m very impressed with the young musicians that I’m working with, like the pickup bands you mentioned — if they play rockabilly, ’50s-rock I call it, they are very knowledgeable, and very serious about it. When I go to rehearse with them, they know those songs, they know the fills, the kick offs, and now, if they don’t, I am really upset [laughs], you know?
But my work is easier in that respect, because the music is so popular. And all over the world, I’ve got some darn good bands to work with. I go in, and they are prepared. We send them the setlist — in order — and the songs on the record. We help them, but they have to do it. They’re more serious with their work.
I worked with a band not too long ago, and it was just like the old days, because the leader was from my era, and he hadn’t changed one bit. I went to rehearsal and he says, “OK, what do you wanna do?” I said, “Don’t you have a setlist?” “Oh, I think I’ve got it here somewhere in my case.” It was sloppy. I’d ask, “Did you even listen to [the material]?” “I’ve heard those songs before, I know your songs,” he said. And this is a peer of mine. Oh, I was fit to be tied. Back in those days, with those guys, you wouldn’t send them nothing — you’d call out the songs on the spot, and the key, and it was very ragged, and really bad [laughs].
NC: So, in general, musicians are more professional now?
WJ: Oh, so much more. The audiences demand it. The TV that we have, the records — you’ve got to be spot-on, or they’re not gonna like it. They are going to wish they stayed home and listened to the records [laughs].
NC: Lastly, what’s your favorite song on this record?
WJ: Well, I like them all. In fact, I’m listenin’ to it everyday. I just feel like my day isn’t complete if I haven’t heard my record. But I like “Like a Baby,” because I really like that song and I got the chance to do it, and Jack’s arrangement on it is so nice.